The Labour-drug Question in precarious times: The rise of Heroin and Xanax

Presented by Mark Hunter

Monday, 14 June, 2021 - 16:00

A considerable amount of research shows that drugs in colonial settings drew indigenous groups into relations of dependence—that is they acted as ‘labor inducers’ and ‘labor enhancers’ in the words of Jankowiak and Bradburd. Southern Africa’s racial capitalism was notoriously drug fueled, as exampled by mining companies’ providing of alcohol to workers and farmers’ paying of ‘dops’ of wine. Yet attempts to think through connections between drugs and work have somewhat stalled in recent years both in South Africa and wider afield. This is despite innovative work on genealogies of ‘addiction,’ and efforts by labor scholars to challenge linear notions of proletarianization or precarianization. As such, while South Africa’s place in international drug trafficking is becoming well studied, less emphasis is placed on the experiences of those using psychoactive substances, including the way these are lived through categories such as izidakamizwa (roughly intoxicants in isiZulu)—a concept that deemphasizes legal status and overlaps with certain gendered meanings of work. The paper gives focused attention to two drugs that burst into youth culture in Durban in the 2010s, heroin/whoonga and Xanax, and draws out connections to gendered and racialized aspects of casual work, inequalities in schooling, and multilayered understandings of drug use/‘addiction.’

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